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Excavations reveal how much we have forgotten about black history in America

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
July 31st, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Daily Mail is featuring a story about student archaeologists digging into the Maryland soil for artifacts related to what could be the earliest community of free blacks in the United States. Despite the evidence they're uncovering, their professor's claims are subject for debate.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - According to a team of archaeologists, a site in Maryland's Eastern Shore represents the home of the nation's first free black community. According to historians, the community was home to hundreds of free blacks who thrived as fellow blacks toiled nearby in slavery.

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The findings suggest that despite racism inherent in the society, blacks and whites managed to live peacefully in segregated societies and that slavery and race relations were not what many presently assume.

Indeed, historical evidence suggests that blacks have long lived freely in America, since the earliest days of settlement, and at times settled into communities that were well off both economically and politically.

Let's make no mistake - the early Americans colonists were racist, and they practiced slavery from the some of the earliest days, but they were more interested in survival, and later profit, than race relations.

The first Africans in the Americas were sold as indentured servants, not slaves, into the colony at Jamestown. In the early years of American colonization, indentured servitude was the preferred method of working plantations and farms. Most of these early indentured servants were whites from England, who often came from debtor's prisons and saw the colonies as an opportunity to start fresh, following their servitude.

A small, but significant number of blacks worked as indentured servants alongside these whites.

As indentured servants, life was harsh, even deadly. Indentured servants were treated as virtual slaves and on occasion these servants fled the plantations, with whites and blacks sometimes even fleeing together. Generally, they were hunted and brought back, punished, and returned to work.

For those who did survive their period of indentured servitude, they were set free. This included blacks. These newly freed people often settled in the frontier regions, starting their own farms in the wilderness and providing an important buffer against occasional Native American hostility -when they weren't provoking it themselves.

Thus, the first free blacks lived alongside whites from the early to mid seventeenth century onwards.

Interestingly, documents suggest that Anthony Johnson, himself a black indentured servant taken from Angola, Africa, became the first person to legally own another black person in slavery in the United States. This is documented in a Virginia court case from 1851.

Of course, early Americans were still elitist and racist, so segregated communities became a normal feature in cities such as Philadelphia that contained large numbers of free blacks. Quaker society developed a habit of freeing slaves upon the deaths of masters, which caused these communities to swell with numbers.

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Large populations of free blacks, many of who were never enslaved, also managed to flourish in major cities such as New Orleans, which was a French colony until the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Following U.S. acquisition, the black community there continued to flourish, and some blacks even  volunteered for unarmed Confederate service, although many more townsfolk later fought for the Union.

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Meanwhile, in Maryland, considered part of the American South, where racism and slavery was deeply ingrained, free blacks established their own communities, such as that along the Eastern Shore.

Back in Maryland, students and professors are still digging to recover the lost history of the community on the Eastern Shore. They have uncovered artifacts that suggest the community was healthy, thriving with hundreds of residents and doing well financially.

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Nearby, plantations, worked by hundreds of slaves, also flourished.

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The work suggests that our understandings of race relations and the role of blacks in American history remains poorly understood. Hopefully, through careful research and study, we can learn more about the unique dynamics and contributions of the free African-American community to U.S. history.

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